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During the downtown lunch rush, every second counts

Employees worked in an assembly line serving customers lunch at Pita Thyme in Boston.
Employees worked in an assembly line serving customers lunch at Pita Thyme in Boston.David L. Ryan/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

Elias and Louma Khoury don’t serve breakfast at their restaurant, they don’t serve dinner, and they’re not open weekends. They own one of those small downtown takeout places that cater to office workers, which means their whole livelihood comes down to lunch.

“Two hours,” Elias Khoury said, “can make you or break you.”

Chicken Shawarma. Falafel rollups. Steak kabob. Moving with the coordination of a Patriots special teams unit, the upbeat assembly line behind the counter at Pita Thyme serves 3½ to four customers a minute.

But with rent, payroll, and tahini costs rising, and beef and pita going up, too, Elias Khoury would love to break the lunch-line version of the sound barrier — to serve five people per minute.

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“But it depends on what the customer orders,” he said. Rollups take longer to make than salads and plates “by 30 seconds.”

Tick, tick, tick.

Zo cashier Maritza Lemus
Cashier Maritza Lemus makes sure customers don't have to wait long at Zo. (Video: Tyler Dolph/Globe Correspondent)

In downtown Boston, speed is the cuisine of choice. No one has time. Not the administrative assistants. Not the financial analysts. Not the vice presidents of human resources. Spend too long waiting for your sushi and — poof — the only half-hour you have to yourself all day is gone.

Even the order-ahead apps aren’t fast enough. Feel the tension of the crowd waiting in a salad place for the kale they preordered on their phones.

“Collective impatience,” is how Ryan Cherry, a tech support engineer on his lunch break, described it.

It's all about lunch at Pita Thyme downtown, which means dealing with long lines. Speed is crucial for everyone involved.
It's all about lunch at Pita Thyme downtown, which means dealing with long lines. Speed is crucial for everyone involved.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

But you know who’s really in a rush? The people who know that if the line moves too slowly, soon there will be no line at all.

It is in this world, where minutes matter, that a restaurant, and even an individual worker, can gain fame for speed, hyperlocal fame though it may be.

On the corner of State Street and Merchants Row, at a packed Greek takeout spot called Zo, there’s a cashier who moves so fast that a co-owner of the restaurant fears she’ll be lured away.

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“You always worry about that,” Andy Kolokythas said.

The Zo cashier’s name is Maritza Lemus. Her signature move involves grabbing a paper bag, passing it from her right hand to her left while (seemingly simultaneously) inserting a napkin, utensils, and the customer’s food, even if it’s soup and a bulky salad, while at the same time ringing in the order and swiping a credit card.

When Kolokythas saw a video of her working, which was taken by an impressed co-worker, he thought it had been sped up. “But then I noticed that the people in the background of the video were moving at normal speed,” he said.

She’s so fast that some customers don’t know they’ve already paid, he said.

Customers waited in a line at Pita Thyme.
Customers waited in a line at Pita Thyme.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Lemus, the 24-year-old wonder-cashier, has time off right now, but when reached by phone visiting family in El Salvador, she was modest.

“I don't know how I do it,” she said. “It’s just my hands.”

She’s not an athlete, Lemus said, and wasn’t particularly fast at her previous job, a waitressing position in Cambridge, and finds it amusing that some customers try to secretly record her on their phones.

“To be honest,” she said, “when I first started working at Zo I was so overwhelmed seeing the line.”

“How am I going to do this?” she asked herself.

Nearly five years of spanokopita and avgolemono soup later, Lemus is still not quite sure how she does it — staying in the moment helps — but all she knows is that over time she’s picked up the pace.

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“The most important thing is I started liking it,” she said.

A lot of places are open from about 11 a.m. to 2:30 or 3 or even a little later, but the lunch rush is more concentrated. One owner says the crunch hits between 11:55 a.m. and 1:20 p.m.

Note to people who play the downtown lunch game: Square, a financial services company that studied four years worth of data, has identified 1:04 p.m. as the single busiest minute for lunch transactions around the neighborhood.

Almost forgot to mention: The food needs to be good, not just fast. But in busytown, few are willing to go to a lunch spot where time stands still — an RMV with noodles, where employees chat with each other as desperate would-be customers try to make eye contact.

Lunch-spot owners talk about the importance of flow and camaraderie among the workers assembling the grain bowls and Impossible meatball subs the modern workforce demands.

But there’s another player, too. The customer. The people on either side of the lunch counter are like pairs skaters. One can blow it for the other.

“If somebody stops and asks a million questions it screws up the whole rhythm,” said Zo’s Kolokythas. He gave an example of a problem question: “Does the cream of mushroom soup have mushrooms?” (Yes.)

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A few minutes away, at Al’s State Street Cafe, the lunch crowd was building. Proprietor Alan Costello wasn’t there. He was in Miami. But his mother, working the cash register, mentioned that a few years ago some professors from an Ivy League school were so impressed with the speed of Al’s line they came back with students to study it.

Costello, reached later by phone, said the group — from Dartmouth, but he never got the profs’ names — stood outside and timed how long it took when the line was in full throttle, all the way out the door. “They came up with three minutes and 47 seconds,” he said. (The academics did not measure the stress hormones coursing through the blood of novice or indecisive customers who find themselves at the counter almost too soon, panicked as pressure builds to spit out an order.)

How is Al’s so fast? Costello has a couple of rules. “Tuna is a 10-second sub,” is one.

Another describes how rapidly a worker should get the customer’s order. “Be on them like sea gulls at Kelly’s looking for french fries.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.